Is the U.S. giving up control over DNS to ICANN a threat to internet freedom

On the 14th March the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced “its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community.” The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and global stakeholders will come up with a proposal for the transition. The transition itself “must have broad community support and address the following four principles:

  • Support and enhance the multistakeholder model;
  • Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS;
  • Meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and,
  • Maintain the openness of the Internet.”[1]

What actually is this transfer of control? The control over the master list of domain names is being handed over - this is a list of the unique numbers that are necessary to surf the internet. Part of this control is creating new domain names such as .uk for the United Kingdom or more recently a whole load of new domains like .clothing, sometimes now for individual firms. Critics however are less concerned over ICANN handing out lots of new domain names, although there has been controversy over .xxx, but about the possibility that it could take websites domain name away from them. If this were to happen the website would become almost impossible to find; the website would stay up but could only be found by using the sequence of numbers (like rather than the name. If someone controls the ability to take away domain names then they potentially control freedom of speech on the internet, or more accurately the ability to get your message heard.[2] Certainly a potential concern; but is ICANN really more of a concern than the Department of Commerce?


Points for:

Means no government has control

No government should have control over the internet. The internet has become really important, it has even been suggested that access to it should be considered a human right.[3] So one country having the control the US has is dangerous. Critics of the United States, both internal and external, don’t want to live under the shadow of the US government being able to take away the domain name of their websites. There should be no possibility of the US government arbitrarily using its control for its own geopolitical agenda.[4] Once others might have trusted the USA with the internet, after learning about how the NSA uses the internet that trust is gone.

Counter: The United States has never used the internet for its own agenda; it has not cut anyone’s access off by depriving them of domain names.[5] The US does not want to restrict the internet and freedom on it but to encourage the growth of the internet. This is best done by doing nothing. A new controller will therefore likely mean more, not less, real government control.

This is part of a much delayed transition

U.S. control is a historical anachronism as a result of the U.S. invention of the internet. In other words it comes from a time before the internet was global and global governance was necessary. The need for change has been recognised for over a decade. In 1997 the Clinton administration “directed the Secretary of Commerce to privatize the management of the domain name system (DNS) in a manner that increases competition and facilitates international participation in its management.” The transition was supposed to happen by 30 September 2000.[6] It didn’t. It is high time the U.S. followed through.

Counter: That there was an intention to hand over the DNS before does not make it a good idea. The process was delayed due to concerns about private management, concerns that still exist. Later it did not occur due to the politicisation of the internet, a condition that also still exists.[7]

Good for diplomatic relations

In a world that is becoming increasingly multipolar it makes sense that the USA should not be the only country with extensive influence over the internet. US control does not reflect the realities of modern international politics where the EU, China, Russia and India are almost as important. China and Russia have in the past demanded “Member States shall have equal rights to manage the Internet, including… numbering, naming, addressing and identification”.[8] This move by the U.S. goes a long way to meeting this demand.

Counter: Good relations with Russia and China over the internet are not necessarily desirable. Both countries engage in censorship, China is particularly known for the ‘great firewall’. This is not something the U.S. should be encouraging however indirectly by giving these countries a greater role in internet governance.

We should all have control

The internet belongs to no one, and this move simply demonstrates this. ICANN states “all Internet users have a stake in how the Internet is run, and it is therefore important to get involved”.[9] With this change this is even truer than it was. If you really are concerned that this move will have an impact on the internet, then get involved yourself.

Counter: If ICANN and the internet are accountable to everyone then who is it really accountable too? A desire that everyone have control is very utopian, and therefore bound to fail. If everyone really did want to get involved there would be chaos.


Points against:

Damages internet freedom

Transferring control over the DNS system puts internet freedom at risk. The Department of Commerce is giving away the ability to essentially knock websites offline. At the moment it is possible for a country that does not like a website to block access to it internally. But with control of the DNS if that country does not like the website it will be able to block access both from inside and outside the country. This could have immense effects; it would damage freedom of speech online, but could equally be used to help one’s own countries at the expense of others.[10]

Counter: But control is not being handed over to another country or indeed any political organisation. One of the conditions of the transfer is that the openness of the internet be maintained. The Department of Commerce is clearly a political organisation; ICANN on the other hand is apolitical. Clearly there should be less concern about this happening under ICANN than under the DoC.

Opens the door to Russian and Chinese influence

Bill Clinton wrote:
Governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet. I understand in theory why we would like to have a multi-stakeholder process. I favor that. I just know that a lot of these so-called multi-stakeholders are really governments that want to gag people and restrict access to the Internet.[11]
Governments already have some say in ICANN, and have even more control over the International Telecommunications Union. The US does not want the system going to the UN but it is difficult to see how any body without some form of UN involvement will have legitimacy. And non-western countries have a lot of influence at the UN.

Counter:  It is unlikely that ICANN is suddenly going to become a body that restricts internet freedom. It announcement states “NTIA will not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”[12] With the exception of the US’ control over domain names governments have very little control over ICANN; they form one of four advisory committees that provide recommendations.[13] As ICANN will remain in Los Angeles it is unlikely that governments will be able to coerce the organisation into doing their bidding.

ICANN is not a good steward

Is ICANN fit to take this responsibility? In 2000 it was decided it was not, and little has changed since then except that governments have become more vocal within ICANN. Groups such as the Digital Citizens Alliance claim that ICANN has made mistakes and not been a good steward. Moreover without the hand of the U.S. government ICANN will become much more dependent and likely to be influenced by those who buy the domain names which is the organisation’s source of revenue.[14]

Counter: Any organisation with lots of levels of oversight and a huge number of groups with an interest in running it is going to be pushed in lots of different directions. It will inevitably make what some groups consider to be mistakes. But the only alternative to being so inclusive is to have much more restricted control; something which would give power to a much smaller group. The funding of ICANN is unlikely to make any difference; it is a business transaction selling the domain names to those who wish to use them.[15] This should incentivise ICANN to create more domains not to be taking them away from existing websites.

[1] NTIA, ‘NTIA Announces Intent to Transition Key Internet Domain Name Functions’, Department of Commerce, 14 March 2014,

[2] Zittrain, Jonathan, ‘No, Barack Obama Isn’t Handing Control of the Internet Over to China’, New Republic, 24 March 2014,

[3] See the Debatabase debate ‘This House believes that internet access is a human right

[4] Duncan, Geoff, ‘Why is the U.S. surrendering control of the internet? (and why you should care)’, Digital Trends, 19 March 2014,!BA6vC

[5] Greeley, Brendan, ‘The U.S. Gives Up Its Control of the Free-Speech Internet’, Bloomberg Businessweek, 17 March 2014,

[6] ‘Memorandum of Understanding Between the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’, Department of Commerce, 1998,

[7] Duncan, 2014,!BA6vC

[8] Russian Federation, ‘Proposals for the work of the conference’, World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), 3-4 December 2012,!R1!MSW-E.pdf

[9] ‘Frequently Asked Questions – Public’,, 14 March 2014,

[10] Duncan, 2014,!BA6vC

[11] ‘Clinton: Internet Freedom Will Suffer If US Gives Up Oversight’, CBS DC, 25 March 2014,

[12] NTIA, 2014,

[13] ‘What does ICANN Do?’,, accessed 27/3/2014,

[14] Timberg, Craig, ‘U.S. to relinquish remaining control over the Internet’, Washington Post, 14 March 2014,

[15] Zittrain, 2014,


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